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Totsukawa, Nara Prefecture

Japan In-depth

World Heritage pilgrimage roads and a refuge for loyal samuraiAlex Arthur Kerr (USA)

A mysterious valley village among spectacular nature and World Heritage sites
The village of Totsukawa lies in a wild and mysterious valley near the border between the Nara, Wakayama and Mie prefectures. There are plenty of scenic spots such as large canyons and waterfalls, a World Heritage-designated pilgrimage route passes through, and it is also the largest village in Japan. Walking all around it takes several days.
The location of this village closely resembles that of one of my favorite places, Iya in Tokushima prefecture on Shikoku, which is said to be one of Japan’s three most unexplored regions. However, as no train line or highway comes close to Totsukawa, this area is even further removed from human habitation than Iya. I myself would call it “Japan’s second most secluded place.”
One of the old Kumano Kodo trails that are part of the World Heritage-designated “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range,” passes through Totsukawa. This mountain path, which is called Kohechi, connects Kumano Hongu Taisha, which is the central shrine among the World Heritage sites, with Mt. Koya, which is the headquarters of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism. It is said to be the steepest among all the designated trails and is used for ascetic practice by followers of Shugen-do, a religion that fuses elements of Mountain Buddhism with Shinto. Meanwhile, this is also still a land of fervent belief in Shinto, and the three great shrines of Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hatayama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha have flourished since the 11th century.
 
The birthplace of samurai whose names have gone down in history
The name “Totsukawa” has made several impressive marks in Japanese history through the ages.
One of these was in the 14th century, when the Imperial court was divided into a Northern and a Southern Court, each ruled over by a separate emperor, and each claiming to be the legitimate line. The de facto power behind the Northern Court was the Ashikaga Shogun who also ruled over most of the rest of Japan. The Southern Court, on the other hand, had its stronghold in Yoshino, a few dozen kilometers north of Totsukawa, and the villagers of Totsukawa too fought on the side of the Southern Court. The dispute ended with a truce after the Southern side gave up, but the samurai of the Southern Court never ceased to believe that they had fought for the legitimate emperor. , and When the legitimacy of the line descended from the Southern Court was advocated anew in the late 19th and early 20th century, these men became the heroes of the loyalists. As the samurai fighting for the Southern Court, including warriors from Totsukawa, were based in the mountains, they are also known as “mountain samurai.”
In the closing years of the Edo period in the mid-19th century, among the samurai who “aimed to overthrow the shogunate and create a new government based on the restoration of the emperor” were a group from Totsukawa, who were still practicing samurai although they lived in farm villages. These so-called Totsukawa-Goushi were a tough bunch who went up to Kyoto where they surrounded the emperor’s residence and acted as his guards. There is even a theory that when Sakamoto Ryoma, one of the central figures in the movement towards a new regime, was assassinated, his killer was able to sneak into the inn where Ryoma was staying by impersonating one of the Totsukawa-Goushi, who were on the same side.
Be that as it may, Totsukawa is an enigmatic place, where the landscape, mountains, history and creeds have a flavor of their own.
 
Access:
From JR Osaka, take the train to JR Tsuruhashi and transfer to the Kintetsu line to Yamatoyagi station (approx. 50 minutes.) From there, the bus to Totsukawa takes 3 hours 40 minutes.
 
Related sites:
http://www.alex-kerr.com/www_index.html (English)
http://www.chiiori.org/jp/ (Japanese)
Contact:
atyk12@gmail.com
alexakerr@gmail.com
 
Alex Arthur Kerr
Born in Maryland, U.S.A. in 1952; Majored in Japanese Studies in Yale University; Studied in Keio University; Did Chinese Studies in the University of Oxford; Published Utsukushiki Nihon no Zanzo, pub: Shinchosha, Japan, 1993 (its English version Lost Japan, pub: Lonely Planet Co., Australia, 1996); The book became popular and was awarded with the Shincho Literature Prize. Besides writing books and articles such as “Inu to Oni” Shirarezaru Nihon no Shozo (“Dog and Demons” Portrait of an Unknown Japan), Kodansha; he is now actively involved in consulting business as a scholar in Eastern culture for public projects such as machiya (Japanese traditional wooden houses) restoration project in Kyoto.